Great Escape
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The Great Escape

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Although as a kid I wasn’t really into war flicks there was one that I loved and still remains one of my favorite films, the Great Escape. Based on a true story of a group of Allied prisoner’s of war in a German camp, this is a story of dedication, hope and survival. During World War Two it was the sworn duty of every officer to escape from captivity. The rationale for this was to force the Germans to expend man power and resources tracking them down. The Germans created Stalag Luff III, especially designed to house prisoners of war that have previously made several attempts at escape. While the Germans had hoped that putting ‘all the bad eggs in on basket’ would make containment easier in actually it just concentrated the best of the best together, the men wasted little time before serious plans for the most massive escape ever could be executed. Along side the typical military hierarchy there was created a unique division of labor among the prisoners.

Each one was given a task suited to his particular talents. There was Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), the Cooler King. His job was to distract the Nazis with futile escape attempts, keeping then busy and resulting in long stretches in isolation. Hendley (James Garner) was the Scrounger, a man capable of cajoling the Nazis for needed information and supplies. The Tunnel King Velinski (Charles Bronson) was a human mole able to design and dig the three tunnels that where planed. Each detail of the plan was tediously worked out and managed by the head honcho, Big X (Richard Attenborough), a man dedicated to honoring his commission as a Royal Air Force office even though he was imprisoned. This is without a doubt one of the most well known ‘guy flick’ ever made. It embodies the noble qualities of team work, dedication, loyalty and faith as few movies ever have. Perhaps this is what drew me to this film as a boy and why it remains such a personal favorite, it displays what heights a human being can attain under the most intimidating circumstances. Rather than concentrate on the difficulties of being a P.O.W. this film focuses on the job at hand, escape. In order to accomplish this the men here must look past personal agendas to realize a greater good. Still, these are not super men; they are subject to the frailties that affect us all. The Tunnel King has had one too many tunnels collapse on him, the devotion of the Scrounger to his blind friend, not only must the men work against the Nazis they have to overcome some aspects of their own humanity.

There is no discussion possible here; this is one of the finest all male casts ever assembled. Each actor was a star in his own right but like the characters they portrayed, they submitted to the greater good and overcame any desire to take over the show. McQueen is at his best as the cocky Hilts. As the brash American among the more reserved British he shines in this role. He also got to do what he loves, riding motorcycles. In one of the most famous scenes he rides across a field chased by the Germans. He loved riding so much he actually worked as a German pursuer, actually chasing himself. Bronson gives a repeat of the angst ridden hero that gave in the Magnificent Seven. As the Tunnel King he allows his rough exterior to break enough to show the fear and despair that would naturally affect men in these conditions. The list of accolades just goes on and on. Each of the main actors here had long and illustrious careers yet this film presents some of their best work. While this is a guy movie there is emotion displayed. The sub plot concerning the friendship between the Scrounger (Garner) and his bunkmate the Forger (Donald Pleasence) is nothing short of heart warming. It demonstrates that men can care.

Director John Sturges has some of the most notable flicks ever to his name. With films like ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ and ‘Ice Station Zebra’ Sturges is no stranger to mostly male casts and giving the audience an ample dose of action. What permits this director to stand a cut above his peers is the fact that his movies are not just action for the sake of action. He instills thought into his films. There is a purpose that drives the action, not just a movie like so many today where things happen for the sake of giving the stunt men a really good payday. He takes the screen play by James Cavell and permits the story to build organically. Nothing is forced or contrived here, there is true motivation provided for the excitement we get to witness. Having grown up watching the pan and scan abomination shown on television this original scope presentation permitted to truly appreciate the talent Sturges has for composing a scene. Every frame is rich in detail, all adding to the experience. Even though this film is almost three hours in length you will not be looking at your watch. Your attention is drawn into the story even in the slower scenes that are full of exposition. This in itself distances this film from almost every action film released in recent years.

At long last we have a DVD released of this film that is worthy of its scope. The remastered anamorphic 2.35:1 video is pristine. The color saturation is right on the money and looks as good as it did back in 1963. The audio is presented in both a rich Dolby 5.1 and, for the purist, the original mono. The surround sound takes flight in scenes like the famous motorbike chase as the machines zoom around your living room. There is a rich selection of extras presented here from an informative commentary track to a special trivia mode. The featurettes give the proper respect to a film of this stature, providing better than the usual insight into not only the film but the real men that served and died during the real escape. This is definitely a film that you can enjoy time and time again.

Posted 4/8/04

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